Fight over wildfire prevention threatens to upend federal farm aid

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An increasingly fierce debate about how to prevent deadly wildfires in California is threatening to endanger crucial crop insurance for farmers in Kansas and Missouri.

In the wake of wildfires that killed at least 88 people this month, President Donald Trump’s administration is pressuring Congress to include provisions in the farm policy bill that would roll back regulations on forest-thinning projects — a move the administration says would save lives and property.

“We cannot waste a crisis. … We need to treat more acres,” U.S Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said Monday while visiting Paradise, Calif., where hundreds remain missing after the Camp Fire tore through the Northern California town earlier this month.

The fire, which was finally 100 percent contained on Sunday, is the most deadly and destructive in state history. It’s prompted calls for policymakers to do more to improve forest conditions that have made the West more vulnerable to catastrophic fire. Among the suggested remedies: Clearing brush and thinning trees.

Environmental groups and many Democrats are staunchly opposed to the Republican-backed forestry measures, which are included in the version of the farm bill the GOP-led House passed earlier this year. And Democrats — who can block the legislation in the Senate — are not willing to concede much.

“What the House has proposed on forestry would kill the farm bill,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, warned Tuesday.

Congress already missed a September deadline to a pass a farm bill to re-authorize the nation’s $867 billion food and agriculture programs.

The House and Senate need to pass a compromise version before the end of the year to ensure that the programs, including crop insurance and nutrition assistance, continue operating.

That puts Republicans in an awkward position at a time when they have lost a key source of leverage — they will no longer control in the House in 2019, which makes passing a farm bill this year critical for their interests.

The House plan would enable the Forest Service to expedite forest management projects to prevent catastrophic wildfires, according to House GOP aides.

But critics warn that okaying certain thinning projects would be destructive to the environment and actually increase the danger posed by wildfires.

Chad Hanson, the director and principal ecologist for the California-based John Muir Project, said that by allowing logging projects that would dry forest floors, the House proposals “would actually put communities at significantly greater risk.”

“It would make fires burn hotter and faster,” Hanson said, noting that the California fires took place in some of the most heavily logged areas of the Sierra Nevada range.

House GOP aides said the Forest Service would still take environmental considerations into account under the expedited process.

Opponents also note that the 2018 spending deal Congress reached in March included several new tools that allow the federal government to streamline forest management projects — authority that the agriculture or interior secretaries have yet to use.

“That bipartisan bill already cleared the way for them to perform expedited forest management practices and fuels reduction work on wildfire-prone forests,” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, pointed out in a statement last week.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in October seeking information on how the Forest Service is using the new tools provided by that bill. She has yet to receive a response.

In the meantime, the president and leading administration officials have continued to lobby for environmental restrictions to be loosened. That includes exemptions, contained in the House farm bill, that would allow the Forest Service to bypass current requirements for environmental analysis and public participation for forest thinning projects up to 6,000 acres.

Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke argued in a piece on CNN’s website that the legislation would create jobs in the timber industry and save lives by preventing future fires.

“I’ve visited too many fire camps, grieved with too many victims and spoken with too many experts to know that our communities and loved ones deserve to be better protected,” Zinke wrote.

Zinke’s editorial and Trump’s tweets about wildfires have put pressure on congressional Republicans to try wring concessions from Democrats on in the bill. It’s a fight the party might not be able to win.

Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said in an email that failing to include the provisions “would mean the continued mismanagement of forests which, as we have seen in the recent devastating fires, can have drastic consequences.”

Republicans could take a political hit if they failed to pass a farm bill while controlling both the House and Senate, particularly in the agriculture-heavy parts of the country that they tend to control. And the party will have even less leverage to force the forestry changes it’s demanding in the new year, when Democrats take control of the House.

That’s convinced Democrats that Republicans have more to lose in the negotiations, and will ultimately have to accept minor changes to the status quo on forestry policy.